Final Death Throe of a Retailing Legend

The last remnant of the Bonwit Teller chain has closed its doors, another victim of the retailing revolution.

  • It once seemed impossible, but another giant has been toppled. In Syracuse, N.Y., the last survivor of the Bonwit Teller department store chain, whose flagship store once graced Fifth Avenue, officially went out of business Monday. It was more of a whimper than a thud. The chain's legendary Manhattan store, which had vaulted ceilings and was the first U.S. retailer to sell European clothing, closed its doors more than a decade a go — its site is now occupied by the gaudy Trump Tower and a Nike emporium — and the final store of the chain hadn't turned a profit in 10 years. On Monday, its current owner, Pyramid, finally decided to boot the retailer from a mall the company owns. Taking over the space: a specialty store.

    Such is retail in modern America: first B. Altman, then Gimbels and now the legendary Bonwit's. Despite a slight uptick in business caused by the current economic boom, the one-stop-shop department store has seen its business stolen by two phenomenons: the discount store (Wal-Mart, et al.) and "category killers" (Bed Bath and Beyond, Home Depot). "Bonwit's has the same story of many of the great old department stores," says TIME business editor Bill Saporito. "Once the original family sold it, it fell into financial mismanagement. But at the same time there's just no market for middle-end retail anymore. You have to either be high or low. Category killers have altered the concept of retail forever — and for the better. Products are more specialized and cheaper than in department stores." Maybe so, but walking down the harshly lit aisles of a wire-racked discount store, it's hard not to be nostalgic for the majesty of the great old retail palaces.